A post in which readers will learn how the Brier exposed writers’ secrets
I recently spent ten days watching the Brier—the Canadian men’s curling championship. If you are among the misguided souls who think curling is boring, you might wonder why I’d voluntarily give up almost sixty hours of my time. Two reasons: I grew up in a small town in northern Alberta where curling was, and still is, one of the two traditional sports (the other being hockey) so it’s part of my DNA; and it allowed me, for those sixty hours, to pretend the world is a sane, safe place. (Almost as good as reading a great book!)
The round robin games were comforting in their predictability. I never doubted which teams would finish at the top of the leader board. If there were battles, it was for the last two spots in the playoff rankings. None of that concerned me. I knew that two of my favourite teams—Gushue and Koe—would be in the playoffs, perhaps ranked one and two.
The Koe team represented Alberta. If they won the Brier, their skip Kevin Koe would set a record for number of Briers won. Word was that at least two members of the Koe team would be moving on next year, so the team was intent on securing that fifth win for their skip.
Gushue’s team had just returned from the Beijing Olympics where they won the bronze medal in men’s curling. As a result, they had probably had more on-ice practice (if you can call the Olympics practice) building up to the Canadian championship than any other Canadian team in the Brier.
During the round robin, I said I would be happy if either Koe or Gushue took home the trophy. But in truth, I was pulling just a teeny bit more for Koe, because of the Alberta connection and because of his chance to set a record.
Fast forward to the playoffs. Gushue and Koe are there, and I’m feeling comfortable. All I care about is that one of them wins the gold medal. Then the stakes are raised.
(An aside for those unfamiliar with curling: each team has four players. A skip, who throws the stones or rocks last; and a lead, second, and third, who throw stones in that order. The skip directs the action. When a player throws his stones, two others brush the rock as it travels down the ice. The brushers are so skilled that they make the rock curl or straighten, guiding it to the exact spot the skip has indicated—this is no easy task—trust me, I tried it and lived with the muscular pain for days.)
Back to the Brier and the raised stakes. Disaster strikes on the first of the playoff days when Gushue’s third (Mark Nichols) tests positive for Covid and must self-isolate for the balance of the Brier. A disaster, first because he has Covid. But also because Nichols is an unbelievably skilled curler. Imagine a drinking game where everyone downs a shot of tequila whenever Nichols misses: it will be a bust because everyone will be stone-cold sober at the end of the game. To add to the Gushue team’s challenge, most curling teams have a fifth member, an alternate, who can step in when Armageddon happens. Not the Gushue team. They have four members. Period.
Now? They have three.
Now they face the playoffs against some excellent four-member teams. Now, when a rock is thrown, they will have only one person brushing. One person brushing, carving, guiding the rock. Plus, to win gold, they must play and win three games while short-handed.
I had been so comfortable. Things were going according to plan. Predictably so. I was able to multi-task while watching some of the games. You know, lounge on the sofa and play the occasional game of solitaire on my iPad while keeping an eye on the competition.
Nichols tests positive and now I’m sitting straighter. I put the iPad away. I am engaged. I’m pulling with all my energy for Gushue’s team. They are up against it. They face incredible odds. Where every team in the playoffs can be expected to curl at near perfection, Gushue’s team must actually be perfect, for three games in a row.
Gushue’s three-man team wins the first two games. Unbelievably, they are in the final. Facing Koe’s team. The Alberta powerhouse. My other favourite team. But you know, when the stakes became so high for Gushue, I realized that I wouldn’t be happy if either of my favourites won the gold. Nope. I was all-in for Gushue (sorry, Alberta).
Did I expect Gushue’s team to pull it off and beat Koe? Not really.
Did I hope they would? Absolutely.
And did they?
I promised you writers’ secrets would be revealed. Here they are: “Raise the stakes” is the mantra of every good writer. They create characters that readers can care about, give them a goal, and then make things incredibly difficult.
The writer will pitch those characters (say, a Canadian curling team) against powerhouse competition. Perhaps she will disable one of their prize weapons. She will make that weakened team play two games in the same day — approximately five hours of moving granite up and down the ice.
That writer is intent on making readers sit up straight, stop multi-tasking, and become engaged. When you stay awake late into the night, turning pages to get the characters to the finish line, when you close the book with a satisfied sigh at the end, that writer has done her job.
Great post, Charlotte! Only you could compare curling to writing and make it work.
Marcelle, thanks for the compliment!